Domestic violence isn’t just an American problem, and the French drama “Custody” is a nerve-wracking and engrossing story of one family terrorized by an abusive ex-husband.
When writer-director Xavier Legrand introduces the audience to Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Miriam (Léa Drucker), his rage seems to be tempered, but her fear isn’t. The two are sitting, with their lawyers, before a family-court judge (Saadia Bentaïeb), presenting arguments over custody of their 11-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria, an amazing newcomer).
In short strokes, in the analytical calm of a court hearing, we get glimpses of the awful details. We learn Miriam has moved with Julien and the couple’s now-18-year-old daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), to be closer to Miriam’s parents and away from Antoine. However, Antoine tells the judge that Miriam’s accusations are unproven, and that he wants split custody once he moves to Miriam’s new town to be closer to his kids. Joséphine, being 18, decides for herself she wants no contact with her father, so all the pressure is now put on little Julien.
The judge, without sufficient proof of Antoine’s abuse, awards him shared custody of Julien, every other weekend before Antoine moves closer to the family. And poor Julien, sick to his stomach at the thought of staying with his father, must go anyway.
In his first feature, director-writer Xavier Legrand deftly combines the heartbreak of a domestic drama with the nail-biting tension of a horror movie. In interviews, Legrand has said his inspirations included “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “The Shining,” and one can see influences in both films, particularly in how everyone else tenses up waiting for the tightly coiled Antoine to explode.
Legrand has had practice with this topic, and indeed these same characters, in his Oscar-nominated 2013 short film “Just Before Losing Everything.” That short starred Ménochet, Drucker and Auneveux in the same roles (another young actor played young Julien), in an intense scene where Miriam is taking the children far away from Antoine, using a supermarket as a rendezvous point. One hopes the short will be packaged with “Custody” on its DVD release, because it’s a perfect prologue that encapsulate’s Miriam’s fear of the man she once married.
Given more running time, Legrand expands the circle of support, showing Miriam’s steely relations and Antoine’s well-meaning but exasperated parents. There’s a subplot, involving Joséphine and her boyfriend (Mathieu Saikaly), that doesn’t pan out, But when the story is focused on Miriam and Antoine, with Julien in the middle, “Custody” is intensely riveting.
Opened June 29 in select cities; opens Friday, Sept. 7, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, Salt Lake City. Not rated, but probably R for violence, children in peril, sexual content and language. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 94 minutes.